Dissonant Notes

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Quality of Music and The Conformity of Youth | Dwindling Album Sales Explained

Hear ye, hear ye. Come gather round friends and listen to the news. Album sales are at an all-time low. The American music industry is dying. The vultures are circling, the jackals are prowling, and it is surely only a matter of time before the whole sorry mess collapses in on itself. When things start going wrong it’s natural to start pointing fingers. To many people the most obvious culprit is digital downloading, both legal and illegal. Illegal downloading results in lost dollars, and legal downloaders aren’t always interested in entire albums, many preferring to pick and choose individual songs. Others choose to ignore the whole issue with technology and simply point to what they believe is the obvious reason for diminishing music sales: MUSIC SUCKS. Yes, the reason album sales are plummeting is because there’s a lack of good music. Perusing the comments on various articles (a bad idea at the best of times but I’m trying to make a point), many seem to think that music just isn’t as great as it once was.

Let me show you some examples:
“It means one thing only….MUSIC SUCKS TODAY! The crap that is supposedly popular sucks, the crap that’s supposedly good sucks, it all sucks.”
“It all comes down to the quality of the material. So many of the releases today lack imagination and creativity when it comes to the actual song and production. It seems that we are treating the consumer as if they will buy anything. Just because it sounds good does not mean that I would buy it. What happened to those songs that touch you in multiple ways, not just the ones that will make you say humm, not bad.”
“The market is overloaded with mediocre CDs or downloads.”
“Today’s pop stars have no debth (sic).”
“Might have something to do with how most popular music today flat out SUCKS.”

You know what I say to that? Bullshit. First off, album sales these days are still better than they were in the 60s, the so-called golden age of music. Outside of The Beatles, album sales were nothing compared to the 70s, 80s, and 90s. In the top 70 best-selling albums of all time, only three come from the 60s. The real reason album sales are down is because there’s too much good music out there being made by a ridiculously diverse bunch of people. We’re being overloaded with amazing albums and people just can’t keep up. I’m not fucking kidding here. If you can’t find good music in this day and age, then you aren’t trying. You’re in decline but, instead of looking in the mirror, you’re blaming music and society. I can see by that look in your eye that you want me to explain some more. Fine, keep reading.

The vast majority of albums bought from the peak years of the music industry were for shit product. Let me name you a few artists with an estimate of their total album sales:

Celine Dion: 200 million
The Eagles: 150 million
Billy Joel: 150 million
Aerosmith: 150 million
Garth Brooks: 130 million
Dire Straits: 120 million
Kiss: 100 million

That’s a billion album sales from seven artists with nothing but shite on every album. A billion. Many classic artists haven’t actually sold very much. Combine the total album sales of The Small Faces, Aretha Franklin, The Velvet Underground, Nico, Funkadelic, Kraftwerk, The Raincoats, Sonic Youth, Throwing Muses, Public Enemy, and Elliott Smith and you still haven’t topped Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) by The Eagles which has estimated sales of around 40 million. Throw 10 or 15 more of your favourite artists into that calculation and you’re still not even close.

The past is littered with garbage that sold in unfathomable numbers. Want more proof?

Metallica: 100 million
Van Halen: 80 million
Foreigner: 80 million
Journey: 75 million
Mötley Crüe: 75 million
The Scorpions: 75 million

Ugly music, unbelievable album sales. So who was buying this shit? In the 70s and 80s, straight white males made a lot of shitty music, and this helps us answer the question of who bought the music and why these same people tend to be the ones who think MUSIC SUCKS right now. It used to be that all you had to do was be a SWM (straight, white male) who got signed to a major label and fame was all but guaranteed. By 1969 SWMs dominated the album charts, from the perspective of both artist and consumer. Look at the reaction to disco, music not initially made for SWMs. DISCO SUCKS. SWMs controlled everything, and they had a very limited idea of what constituted good music. Artists such as The Eagles, Eric Clapton, and Bob Seger appropriated from outside their race and class and imagined themselves soulful, complained that disco lacked soul, and thought their drug habits and romantic troubles made their lives comparable to old bluesmen. Then, by the late 70s, most stadium guitar bands had stopped listening to contemporary black music altogether. Guitars got louder, and stadiums got fuller. Just at the moment when SWMs were at their peak, however, it all started to come undone.

Although punk was a movement dominated by SWMs, its right-on ideology and do-it-yourself philosophy allowed many non-white, non-male musicians such as X-Ray Spex, Bad Brains and The Slits to break through and create some space and some music. Meanwhile, as the 70s turned into the 80s, mainstream pop had no place for the SWM. Michael Jackson, Prince, and Madonna dominated, and suddenly the charts looked like a scary place for SWMs. As a result, they doubled-down on their ideas about soul and authenticity, imagining their guitars, which had previously filled stadiums to the brim, were suddenly symbols of rebellion and bucking the mainstream. When Nirvana knocked Michael Jackson from the top of the American album charts, it was greeted by many as some kind of cultural victory for real music over pop superficiality. However, as time went on, victories like these became more and more unlikely, and American SWMs turned away from pop culture in disgust, preferring modern country or guitar heavy cock rock. The process had begun with punk, and was accelerated by the dominance of artists such as Prince and Madonna, but by the mid-90s American SWMs had all but abandoned mainstream pop, for the same reason that they had abandoned the idea of government: it became obsolete when it stopped serving their needs explicitly and after that it became a symbol of corruption and herd-thinking. If SWMs don’t like what’s in the pop charts, then the pop charts must be bullshit.

If there’s one thing guaranteed to upset a SWM on the wrong side of 30 just as much as pop music, it’s “kids these days”. The usual line about young people in the 21st Century is that they are brain dead and lack individuality. The truth is, teenagers right now exhibit more signs of individuality by any definition of the term, are way more media savvy, and are less likely to fall in line with societal trends. Ask yourself this: if people start having themed parties centred around the 00s decade, how exactly will they dress? Corporations failing to shift product and struggling to make profit is hardly a sign of mass conformity. If you have millions of kids who see through media manipulation, then it’s harder to sell them substandard material. People from older generations take pride in stating that they always bought albums, went to shows, and stayed faithful to musicians no matter what. Let’s put that another way: they were dependable, loyal consumers who dutifully purchased product whenever they were asked to.

Many social commentators lament the attitudes of music fans in this day and age, with their willingness to pick and choose, download illegally and drop artists without a second thought. What nobody recognises is that kids these days are actually bad consumers. They place less emphasis on physical ownership, and will gleefully subvert the morals of a previous generation to avoid purchasing music. I don’t want to be misunderstood here, I’m not championing illegal downloading, I’m merely pointing out the full ramifications of these actions. Isn’t refusing to do what a monolithic corporate structure requires of you a sign of individuality? Or is unquestioningly obeying advertising demands and laws the sign of a robust individual? I don’t have a definitive answer, but you should take the time to ask yourself these questions. I realise that when all is said and done most people believe true individuality starts and ends with their own behaviour, but individuality can mean anything from sticking to your opinions without question to being completely open-minded in regards to emerging societal trends and social movements. The fact that many people’s transformation from open-minded enthusiast to cynical “but music really was better in my youth” haters-of-all-things-new usually occurs between the ages of 25 and 30 is of course merely coincidence and not a reflection of anybody’s cultural fatigue and unwillingness to explore or enjoy more contemporary musical acts.

The real problem that the industry is dealing with these days is the lack of cultural importance given to popular music and the fact that popular music no longer has the same unifying power as it used to. With less bands to choose from, and with major labels dictating every aspect of the business, music fans in the 70s generally accepted what was handed to them without question, even if it was something as awful as The Eagles. Nowadays there are thousands of small labels capable of releasing great albums. You can spend hours and hours tracking down recommendations, streams, and free downloads. You can listen to as much music as you want, for as long as you want, with no compulsion to own, and that is a problem for die-hard consumers who are used to limited options and immediate cultural feedback in regards to their choices.

Another conundrum for the music industry and SWMs is the fact that so much good music is being made by non-white, non-male artists, and oftentimes their approaches to songwriting and singing can go against what for years was accepted as the only credible approach. With no “great white male hope” able to dominate the market and make music both important and popular, SWMs are increasingly dismissing the whole notion of popular music, or indeed music as a viable art form. Accustomed to being spoon fed by a limited number of publications, unwilling to do any kind of exploratory work, and having no chance of any cultural reverberations to give their tastes that added feeling of importance, older SWMs are lost in a twilight world of yearning for music and movements from years gone by and the cultural approval given to them, and not understanding either the music young people enjoy or the manner in which they choose to enjoy it.

That being said, is there really a lot of good music being made right now? Yes, yes, a billion times yes. Even SWMs are making amazing music. If you’re not excited by Julia Holter, Matthew Dear, Flying Lotus, James Blake, John Grant, Jessica Pratt, Laurel Halo, The Weeknd, Austra, Thundercat, THEESatisfaction, Chromatics, Destroyer, Burial, Frank Ocean, Mount Kimbie, Kanye West, Richard Youngs, Boards Of Canada, Jon Hopkins, King Krule, Dirty Projectors, Twin Shadow or Beyoncé, all great artists who are happening RIGHT NOW, then you should probably just admit that music is not something you are interested in any more. That list is nowhere near comprehensive, merely the artists I could think of off the top of my head, and it doesn’t even mention artists from outside of North America and the UK. Obviously I cannot prove to anybody that music is as good as it ever was, given the subjective nature of music appreciation but, by the same token, nobody can prove it is actually getting worse. Defences of music from the past usually point to its cultural relevance and popularity, forgetting that these are aspects which merely solidify group opinion not bolster individuality or prove artistic worth.

Music at this point in time is being made in abundance, and it’s being bought and enjoyed by more discerning buyers. Record sales in the 70s and 80s were built on limited options and catered to the needs of one core audience. The homogeneous nature of music culture was broken completely in the 80s and, tied in with the emergence of computers as a tool to record and promote, the end result has been the unstoppable decline of the music industry as we know it. Punk rockers dreamed of independent artists recording and releasing music with no interference, and they also dreamed of the death of major labels. Those dreams are coming true but it took a generation of computer savvy kids, not punk rockers eager to buy into the system, to do it. Albums still sell in the millions, but major labels no longer have the same power or influence. Independent artists can record and self-release while spending very little money. In terms of individual expression, we’re living in golden times. Yet some people are looking for that same feeling of cultural relevance and group-think comfort. They’re still searching for that youthful feeling, or dreaming of how cool it would have been to live in the 60s, or wishing they had been around when punk first emerged. You know, when music meant something, man. They complain that kids nowadays are mindless drones who can’t think for themselves when the opposite is true. They complain about Pitchfork and blogs and modern music culture because they feel excluded. They complain because ultimately they don’t really care that much any more and can’t face this very frightening fact.

With the unsustainable growth of album sales in the 70s and 80s now returning to more realistic levels, the music industry will have to adjust its outdated business model. In the meantime, independent artists will self-release straight to the internet, music will evolve as musicians experiment with technology and form, and music buyers will perhaps have to do a little work but will be rewarded by the most diverse, innovative, and interesting music the modern world has produced. It won’t be dominated by SWMs with guitars, it might not have that oh-so-classic vinyl crackle, but with the right ears it will convince you that music remains as good as ever. Better even. With less emphasis on massive cultural relevance and more importance placed on individual taste, music will survive because everyone can be a musician, and everyone can be a critic, and more and more of the world’s population can access the internet. Options will be limitless. If that’s a problem, perhaps it’s time to settle in with a nice piece of vinyl, a hot cup of cocoa, and dream of years gone by. The rest of the world has some listening to do.

This article originally appeared on Collapse Board.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Segregation Under a Groove: Pop Music’s Unspoken Colour Lines

Many years ago, a great schism occurred in the history of popular music. As amps got louder and concerts got bigger, new groups responded by creating a heavier kind of music that relied on sheer sonic power as opposed to the lighter sounds of early sixties pop. Rock music broke away from pop and in doing so it embodied something at once more serious, more authentic, and more important than pop. Pop became a critical pariah until a new generation of critics emerged in the eighties who championed pop’s ability to move with the times, as well as its devil-may-care lack of authenticity. As rock music stagnated, unable to transcend its self-imposed limitations, pop experimented gleefully and in doing so was able to continuously reinvent itself. Rock went from being a rebellious cry of freedom to being a reactionary force filled with strict unwritten rules and traditions, which in reality meant that there was little room in rock music for anybody who wasn’t straight, white, and male. Pop music, on the other hand, seemed to provide a safe haven for those whose sex and/or race were a hindrance in terms of acceptance into the culture of rock.

Newer pop music critics shunned the rockist attitudes of older critics by championing non-white, non-male, and non-straight performers and by extension the music they produced. Pointing out the underlying racism of rock music criticism while simultaneously venerating pop for its unbiased, melting-pot philosophy is now a standard weapon in the arsenal of pop fans eager to signify a voracious and open-minded attitude to music listening. Pop fans have been so busy congratulating themselves that they have managed to miss something glaringly obvious to anybody who takes a look: pop has colour lines as immovable as those which made rock an all-white affair but rather than being excluded as they were in rock music, non-white performers are instead subjected to intense personal criticism, as well as suspicion in terms of motivation and talent. In the meantime, criticism of white performers is repeatedly seen as excessive and unproductive, even anti-feminist. Being a white pop songwriter or performer brings numerous accolades, even as black hitmakers are ignored or glossed over, with the general feeling being that black music is not really pop music. Pop is white and until pop fans begin to examine their internalised biases, it’s likely to remain so.

Here is a relatively simple question: who is the most acclaimed pop songwriter of the past 15 years? The answer, for anybody struggling, is Max Martin. Martin has written or co-written dozens of hit songs for numerous artists and he is the go-to hero of the pop music intelligentsia. For proof, type the words “max martin genius” into any search engine (I used Google). You will be inundated with articles, blog posts, and discussion threads with titles such as “Max Martin, the genius behind almost every successful pop song of the last 15/20 years”, “The Genius of Max Martin”, “One Man Has Written Virtually Every Major Pop Song Of The Last 20 Years. And You’ve Probably Never Heard His Name”, “30 Essential Max Martin Songs”, “The 18 Greatest Max Martin Songs of All Time”, etc. You get the picture. Now try typing the words “timbaland genius” into your search engine. Timbaland worked closely with Aaliyah, Missy Elliott, and Justin Timberlake, co-writing many of their songs, as well as writing/co-writing hits for Ginuwine, Jay Z, Beyoncé, Rihanna, and many more. Notice the difference in the search results. Timbaland is not gushed over in the same way as Max Martin. Not even close. The search barely produces any results. Let’s try one more. Pharrell is a songwriter, performer, and producer whose accomplishments are almost impossible to list, with the number of songs he has co-produced and/or co-written seemingly incalculable. Try typing “pharrell genius”, however, and while the odd article may pop up, Pharrell’s success and talent seem small in comparison to that of Martin. What extra element could Max Martin possess that Timbaland and Pharrell lack? The extra element is Martin’s skin colour.

It’s at this point that defensiveness generally shows up among those in denial, prompting desperate internet searches in the hopes that obscure articles exist that will refute all claims of racism. Even though Pharrell is famous in his own right, and Timbaland has a much higher public profile, the Max Martin articles still outnumber those of Pharrell and Timbaland by quite an amount. The fact that Max Martin’s white skin gives him an advantage is not particularly shocking for those in the music industry, but for pop fans this information seems counter-intuitive. Max Martin is wheeled out by Poptimists and Realpop advocates with alarming regularity in an attempt to show some kind of intellectual approach to pop songwriting. There’s a craft, you see, and Max Martin is an expert craftsman. Yes, Timbaland is an expert beatmaker, but is he a true craftsman? Here is where the rockist tendencies of pop fans start to appear, with Max Martin being praised along similar lines as Phil Spector, an expert craftsman who instinctively knows how to create hit music time and time again. Poptimists turn out to be rockists in shinier clothes, desperate to champion the same tedious elements as rockists, but with a huge dash of self-congratulatory backslapping thrown in as a reward for being open-minded and clever enough to understand the mechanisms of pop. Choosing a white male to exalt is the best way to convince others that something out of the ordinary is involved, even in the world of pop music.

Women and people of colour are rarely afforded the title of genius. Only when white males arrive on the scene is the word genius even considered for any participants. Take the art of cooking. For most, cooking is thought of as women’s work, more of a task than an art. Unless of course we’re talking about a chef, that wild, irascible, temperamental perfectionist who wants things to be done just right. From early French luminaries to modern culinary superstars like Anthony Bourdain or Gordon Ramsay, an inordinate amount of white male chefs seem to posses some unfathomable component that demands the label of genius (in the cooking world Julia Child exists as a Jimi Hendrix-like figure, an anomaly who is brandished to disprove overwhelming evidence). Max Martin is seen as a genius because if a white male is successful then he is a genius. Nevermind that most of his songs are formulaic and uninspired compared to the experimental and diverse music of Timbaland and Pharrell. What matters is that he has succeeded in the marketplace and that he is a white male.

While women suffer in the music world (and everywhere else) due to ever-present misogyny, white women benefit from racism by winning approval from critics who instinctively look for the most sympathetic approach when dealing white skinned performers. A perfect example of this would be how the press reacted when Jay-Z recently launched his streaming service Tidal in a blur of publicity. Within seconds he was mocked, lambasted, and generally seen as a money grabbing millionaire looking out for his rich friends (as opposed to somebody who uses big names to launch his product, which is pretty much industry standard). Jay-Z went on to play a concert which was available exclusively on Tidal, prompting Pitchfork to write an article questioning his true motives. Was it about money or fans? Keep in mind that Jay-Z is a black man in America who rose up from poverty and became a multimillionaire through talent, determination and business savvy. He has consistently highlighted social inequities, and even went so far as to bail out Ferguson and Baltimore protesters who were thrown in jail.

Contrast this with Taylor Swift and her recent open letter to Apple which complained that they were not paying artists for music listened to during free trial periods. Swift was not complaining about her own royalties you understand, she was speaking up on behalf of independent artists. Her actions garnered unabashed praise and Pitchfork even penned an article, which placed her just shy of sainthood, containing the aesthetically beautiful statement “Taylor Swift has never not championed the underdog”. Taylor Swift, lest we forget, is a product of enormous wealth. She was born into the kind of privilege that is unimaginable to most and has a career which has bolstered her riches by millions. The fact that her proclamations are viewed as honest and good, while Jay-Z’s are viewed with suspicion, gives an excellent insight into race relations in America. Swift is innocent and pure, while Jay-Z could be manipulating his fans. Swift is sweet, sincere, and means well, while Jay-Z and Beyoncé are mature, cunning, and self-serving (Taylor Swift supporters also employ rockist terminology when defending her against criticism, referring to her songwriting craft, the fact that she mostly writes her own songs, and insinuating that she earned her success by working her way up). Oh, and when James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem opens a wine bar in New York with the help of his famous friends (who Pitchfork doesn’t want to name, because that’s just not cool), we shouldn’t be concerned. Keep an eye on that black man though, he could be trying to make money.

All of this is not to say that rock fans aren’t still up to their old tricks. Racism spills out everywhere in music but is always denied. For instance, who are the two most controversial artists to play at Glastonbury? Jay-Z and Kanye West. Do you see a connection? Lionel Richie was not greeted with such anger because he has been rendered safe due to age, and also because he can be ironically appreciated. Any attempts to deny racism when it came to the outrage prompted by Kanye’s appearance became laughable as Glastonbury fans struggled to name contemporary black artists who they would have preferred (most opted for older acts such as Prince or Public Enemy). Some Glastonbury attendees even went to the trouble of taking an image from (West’s wife and mother to his child) Kim Kardashian’s sex tape, blowing it up, and turning it into a flag to wave while Kanye West played, complete with the words “Get down girl, get head get down” on it. This sickeningly obsessive hate was approved by thousands of British music fans, apparently convinced that a contrarian black artist who flaunts his success as a symbol of pride somehow represents decadent materialism as opposed to the comfortable, white, bourgeois hippie values which hold sway at Glastonbury. “It has nothing to do with race, mate, Kanye’s just a knob” said many an internet commentator. Are we talking about a knob like Liam Gallagher, whose mouthy arrogance and petulant strut are celebrated on a daily basis by the UK music press, a man so idiotic and childish that even his brother couldn’t stand him any more, leading to the break-up of beloved ‘proper music’ band Oasis? “Nah, Liam’s a top lad”. The hate that spills out against black public figures is overwhelming, yet many continue to act as if race is not an element. Schadenfreude greeted the very public unraveling of Tiger Woods, with the excuse being that by having an affair he had shown himself to be a horrible human being, yet David Letterman received a heartfelt send-off when he retired, despite numerous affairs. Serena Williams is regularly abused online, all because she is a successful black athlete. Nobody seems to question why they enjoy joining the braying mob to taunt a black celebrity.

While rock’s racism is accepted as fact, pop’s racism is barely recognised. To be truly pop you must be white, yet this fact is never actually acknowledged. Ask any Brit what the best pop music has been since the sixties and you’re likely to get an answer along the lines of The Beatles, T-Rex, The Jam, The Smiths, The Stone Roses, Oasis, etc. Bowie will on occasion be mentioned, and perhaps Slade. Black artists? Never. As music writer Neil Kulkarni relentlessly points out, British music fans have deified guitar music made by blokes, turning guitar rock into the only true signifier of soul, rebeliousness, and authenticity, while dismissing contemporary music made by non-white artists as being fake and soulless. Only ‘classic’ black artists get to join the club. Even though ‘soul’ as a term emerged from black music in America, and soul music itself featured expert singing and outstanding musicianship, ‘soul’ to many has now come to mean some kind of sloppy, half-arsed approach that finds realness in mistakes and unprofessionalism. Black musicians have always had to be excellent in everything they do in order to be taken seriously. White musicians have the privilege of feeling at home wherever they go and as such can be unconcerned with expectations.

In America, though, pop remains white for different reasons. Here the inherent racism of pop comes out in full force as the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson, is oftentimes not even found in the pop section of music stores. Where would one find Michael Jackson, Bobby Brown, Aaliyah, and Beyoncé if not in the pop section? Most likely R & B, a category that treats black music like a sub-genre instead of the dominant musical force of American music since the beginning of the 20th century. The moment music becomes just a little too black, it ceases to be pop and becomes R & B. Even though Beyoncé began many years ago in a highly accomplished vocal group, and then went on to have a hugely successful solo career, the amount of attention she has received from pop publications is nothing compared to the adulation given to Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, or even Miley Cyrus. Poptimists rush to defend Gaga, Swift, or Cyrus like they are precious children, but in the meantime Beyoncé’s feminist credentials are questioned by all and sundry. Try another internet experiment if you dare. Type “lady gaga genius”, “taylor swift genius”, and “beyonce genius”into a search engine and see what happens. Jesus, type “miley cyrus genius” into a search engine. Notice a pattern here? There are almost zero articles proclaiming Beyoncé a genius despite all of her success, yet Miley Cyrus is already viewed as a savvy marketing prodigy. White performers are always in control, always one step ahead of the press, always credited with intelligence, and if criticised by cultural commentators they are always misunderstood or unfairly maligned. With Beyoncé, her intelligence and astuteness are regarded as a problem, as if her feminism is merely a marketing ploy. Pop’s unconscious (or very conscious) bias towards white male songwriters and white women is there for all to see, with Aaliyah, Kelis, and Rihanna rarely, if ever, discussed by the very same publications that devote multiple page articles to Taylor Swift or Miley Cyrus (go on, type “rihanna genius” into a search engine and see how it compares to the Miley Cyrus results). Whiteness bestows upon a performer intellect, discipline, and guile. Blackness is always suspect, must continue to prove itself time and again, and is almost never worthy of intellectual discussion in pop circles.

It should be obvious to almost everybody that black culture is viewed with distrust or amusement. Song parodies almost always lampoon black culture, be it ‘I’m on a Boat’ or ‘Dick In a Box’. Black people are continuously made fun of, for instance ‘Bed Intruder Song’ or ‘Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That’. When Ricky Gervais wanted to make the David Brent character look like an absolute fool on The Office, he chose a song performed by a black artist. Lest anyone think that Gervais was making fun of Simply Red instead of black vocal mannerisms, may I remind you that non-white characters only exist in The Office to provide cheap laughs in an “Isn’t racism funny?” kind of way (one Asian character is on screen for barely a minute just so Gervais can get a laugh out of racism). Yes, racism is funny for white people. In the greater sense, black culture is seen as corny by a sufficiently large number of white people who seek to digest black music by treating it as an ironic joke and trawling black culture for words to use in polite company in order to provoke laughs. As such black musicians who adhere to different rules are routinely mocked or derided. Festival goers booed Kanye West because he is here and now and he can’t be dismissed, so he must be taken down a peg or two in order to be taught a lesson. Only when black music is ‘classic’, or historically important, or sorrowful, is it deemed safe, otherwise it is dismissed with a snort. Contemporary black artists struggle to be critically appreciated by rock and pop publications because many white people don’t know how to process the content correctly. Laughter and disbelief often greets black artists when they first break through to mainstream culture, and ten years later white artists will be called geniuses for behaving in exactly the same way.

Even though pop supposedly adheres to strict market principles, race is still an overriding factor in terms of critical appreciation. When discussing pop it is a favourite ploy of music writers to assume the pose of people’s champion, insinuating an anti-democratic, snobbish stance from those who would deny the inherent worth of any song which achieves chart success. No less a pop luminary than Bob Stanley of St. Etienne stated in a 2014 interview that he disliked 90% of jazz music, and also did not enjoy the music of boy band Westlife. Yet when following up on Westlife, his actual words were “I can’t imagine I’ll ever be a fan as their stuff is so milky and predictable, but you don’t have 13 UK number ones by accident”. It’s difficult to contemplate how anybody could come to such moronic conclusions but this kind of thinking passes for wisdom in pop circles. Predictably he loves Hall and Oates, whose harmlessly irrelevant and mostly forgettable music has provoked more critical appreciation than the works of almost any black artist you could name. Pop music criticism employs the worst kind of capitalist justification with unconscious white supremacist thinking, with the end result being that Max Martin and Taylor Swift are hailed as geniuses while Timbaland and Rihanna are at best ignored or at worst openly attacked as a sign of everything wrong with modern music. If criticised, fans of Hall and Oates, and even Taylor Swift, will quickly indulge in either rockist justification (they write their own songs, they earned their success) or free-market advocacy (chart success, music sales). The fact that Rihanna has had 13 US number ones (with not one written by Max Martin strangely enough), putting her in the top 5 most successful US recording artists ever, is still not enough to label her a genius or a phenomenon worthy of in-depth critical examination. That honour is reserved for those with white skin.

The worm of racism eats away silently but relentlessly. Just as the people who hated the fact that Kanye was performing at Glastonbury were absolutely convinced that their animosity and mob mentality was born out of genuine dislike, so do pop critics rush to defend the fragility of white femininity with unfailing predictability, all the while treating black women as grown-ups who can take care of themselves, never once questioning why the thought of white innocence and fragility, in contrast to black maturity and toughness, entered their mind in the first place. Rock loves the authenticity of Johnny Cash despite all of his awful albums, his terrible career decisions, and his even worse political views, but dismisses Ray Charles as corny even though his music is essential to the development of rock and roll and soul. Pop loves Hall and Oates but ignores Gamble and Huff, despite the fact that the songwriting team of Gamble and Huff produced dozens of hits for numerous artists (they can’t be appreciated ironically, and they are not white males, so they are forgotten). Pop adores Taylor Swift and really likes Beyoncé but not enough to actually write about her other than album reviews or discussions about whether her performances are too overtly sexual. Pop values Abba over Stevie Wonder because Abba’s whiteness means they can be glorified from a pop perspective, while Stevie Wonder is barely considered due to the fact that he is black. Pop critics need to examine their own backyard instead of turning to rock criticism as the home of all things racist. Black musical success has always come as a result of talent, hard work, and mass popular appeal, yet the pop headlines continue to be grabbed by white artists, be it white women singers or white male songwriters. For the most part it’s white people who continue to see a huge difference between the cultural implications of rock and pop, and who find the differences worth discussing in-depth. To those locked out, a curse on both houses seems more appropriate. Rock functions as the Confederate South, while pop is the North. The South is the obvious bad guy, seeing rebellion in orthodoxy and traditional values, but the pervasiveness of racism shapes the neighbourhoods, schools, and prisons of the North, just in less obvious ways. If you’ve praised Max Martin but overlooked Timbaland, ask yourself why. If you treat Taylor Swift with the utmost seriousness but ignore Rihanna, ask yourself why. The dominance of whiteness is being challenged all over America, and by extension the world. If it can bear to stop congratulating itself, pop music should get around to doing the same.

This essay originally appeared on Collapse Board.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Some Thoughts On The New Pornographers

I recently attended a New Pornographers concert at First Avenue and, as I was waiting for them to appear on stage, I began to evaluate their position in the world of music. Although they have many fans and can sell out venues like First Avenue with great regularity, they remain curiously unloved in the larger sense. They are more viewed as consistent and dependable. Yet there is something unique about them, and that uniqueness flows from Carl Newman, the group’s ringleader and main songwriter. While the group has many qualities which mark them out as excellent, not least the songwriting of Dan Bejar and the voice of Neko Case, it is Newman who steers the ship and, as such, it is his personality which defines how the group are viewed by the masses.

Carl Newman isn’t cool, but he hasn’t commodified his uncoolness like Rivers Cuomo. He’s not begging to be called a nerd. His music collection would probably be called hipster by people whose opinions are not worth anybody’s time, but he’ll never be cool. Not in the way that Dan Bejar is cool. Newman exists in some midway point between T-Rex and ELO, wanting to dazzle like Bolan but coming across like Jeff Lynne in person. His lyrics share Bolan and Lynn’s predilection for pop inscrutability, as opposed to Bejar’s intellectual inscrutability. Newman’s lyrical approach sounds like it emerged fully formed from ‘Band On The Run’ while Bejar’s leapt forth from ‘Perfect Skin’.

Despite being the driving force behind the New Pornographers, Carl Newman doesn’t want to be the centre of attention. While people like James Mercer fire every member of their band, Newman works to keep big hitters like Neko Case and Dan Bejar a part of the lineup, giving Bejar a revolving door that allows him to come and go as he pleases. Even when he doesn’t contribute to an album, Bejar still casts a shadow.

I remember seeing the New Pornographers in Chicago (without Dan) and in between songs somebody shouted “Destroyer” (reminding me that people would yell “Eno” in between songs at early Roxy Music shows, infuriating Ferry and embarrassing Eno). Newman looked a little crestfallen, but he casually stated that he loved Destroyer. Newman seems to posses an unflappable decency, betraying no signs of egomania. People with egomania often get called geniuses, as if that same fragile ego propels boundless creativity. Newman is uninterested in such cliched tropes. More than once he has had to see his band billed as Neko Case and the New Pornographers. I’m sure he seethed, then shrugged, then got on with it.

The New Pornographers are retro, but they don’t make an idol of the past. They don’t try to recreate any particular period of music. They aren’t glam. They aren’t indie, even if they wouldn’t find an audience in any other musical subculture. They aren’t rock. They aren’t pop in terms of what currently resides in the charts. They aren’t power pop in a Raspberries or a #1 Record way. Newman would never be accepted into the ultra serious world of singer-songwriters. There’s too much crunch in the New Pornographers sound. They don’t fit easily into any particular scene.

I say all of these things because I think Newman’s desire to present the New Pornographers as a collective means that his individual songwriting contributions are often forgotten. He’s almost the forgotten man in his own band. Yes, everyone knows Newman is the leader and writes most of the songs, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Yet it should. Newman has been at the helm of a remarkable run of albums, with enough swoops and dives in his songwriting to merit him being labelled a genius, if we are to accept that any songwriter may be called a genius.

If I’m being honest, I wasn’t blown away by their latest album, Whiteout Conditions. Maybe there’s a blue curse on the New Pornographers, given that their other lacklustre album is Electric Version, and its artwork is also dominated by the colour blue. In a somewhat ironic twist, Bejar provided Electric Version with two of its catchiest moments, those being ‘Testament To Youth In Verse’ and ‘Ballad Of A Comeback Kid’. Otherwise the songs lacked something. Some bite. Some fizz. Some dynamic production. This may be the issue on Whiteout Conditions. Hearing the songs live first, I was let down by the recorded versions. Nevertheless this does not detract from Newman’s otherwise magnificent output and let’s not forget every New Pornographers album is a grower. Even Electric Version.

What does Newman bring to the table? Glam slam with a melancholy undertow. Craft mixed with retro pop thrills. It’s the melancholy that pulls you in though. Often his most memorable melodic refrains have a tearful quality to them, an unquantifiable factor that hints at lost dreams which can never be recaptured. Maybe those dreams are the thrills promised by youth and the pop music of our salad days. Best let them go. Newman conjures them up, but only briefly. We glimpse them for a second. We’re not really sure what his songs are about. Are they about anything? Yet they generate an emotional response. They hint and insinuate, and their melodies tug at our hearts. This is Newman’s gift, and he’s given it over and over again.

The New Pornographers are an amazing group of people. Neko Case has a voice that can make people stop talking and stare at her, enraptured. Dan Bejar gets to leap in and out of the frame whenever he pleases, all the while pouring his heart into Destroyer and making the New Pornographers something of an afterthought for him. Yet his contributions are always memorable and at times steal the show. John Collins is the admirable First Mate to Newman, the second most indispensable band member but even more anonymous than Newman. Kathryn Calder's addition on Twin Cinema coincided with a huge leap in songwriting prowess. Each musician brings something to the table, but nothing is possible without Newman. Newman’s songs are the rock upon which the greatness of the New Pornographers is built. His voice lacks Case’s power and Bejar’s innate sense of drama, yet it perfectly suits this no frills frontman, wrestling with his insecurities, wanting perhaps to get out front more, not wanting to make it all about him, having to work always to make his music a success.

Listen now to ‘Mass Romantic’, to ‘The Fake Headlines’, to ‘Letter From An Occupant’, to ‘It’s Only Divine Right, to ‘The Bleeding Heart Show’, to ‘The Jessica Numbers’, to ‘Sing Me Spanish Techno’, to ‘My Rights Versus Yours', to ‘Challengers', to ‘Go Places’, to ‘Crash Years’, to ‘Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk’, to ‘Brill Bruisers’, to ‘Champions Of Red Wine’, and accept that we are dealing with an extraordinary songwriter, and one who has never really been given his due. There exists an unspoken credibility gap between the New Pornographers and bands like Fleet Foxes or the Arcade Fire, a gap that exists because Newman insists on placing a high importance on catchy hooks and unpredictable turns. Absolute seriousness will always win the day and, while New Pornographers songs are not always fun, Newman can’t take himself too seriously. It is an artistic blessing but a self-promotional curse and, as such, Newman’s gifts are taken for granted. It need not be so. I leave the live show exhilarated but puzzled. How can a songwriter this special be overlooked so often? The answer to that question is outlined above. All of the elements have lined up together to deny Newman his place among elite. Yet, for the New Pornographers’ true believers, Newman’s talent is always appreciated and his songs invariably reveals their gifts over time. Time to give Whiteout Conditions another spin.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

If You Want To Be Lucky, Be Lucky!

I gave a short speech at a Toastmasters meeting during my time at Prime Digital Academy, an academy that teaches computer programming. It got a really positive reaction so I thought I'd put the text up on my blog. Here it is.

A strange tension exists within the tech community, and elsewhere, in terms of how a person can achieve success. On the one hand, we are told that certain personality traits help a person flourish: hard-work, determination, curiosity, and adaptability are seen as the prime factors in terms of accomplishing your goals. On the other hand, we are told that most people find a job through knowing a person who works for the company in question. In other words, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. So it’s not really hard work, it’s luck. We were lucky to have come into contact with a person who worked for a company that was hiring. We were lucky to have bumped into an old friend who told us of a position available that we would love. The American Dream is built on the notion that we all have the opportunity to do better. The shadowy underside of this statement is the idea that those who are struggling must somehow deserve to be in their position, that the poor have simply not tried hard enough, that they are just not smart enough, that poverty is not a problem but a natural destination for those who do not possess the correct qualities.

To imagine that those who are more successful are simply luckier is dismissed by many as nonsense. Yet what is the alternative to that belief? That the universe is a perfectly functioning karmic machine which dishes out punishment and reward in exact proportion to effort? That this very machine functions best when no rules and regulations are applied? At that point we have crossed over from politics or philosophy and into metaphysics. To believe that the universe is alive with a judgement system closely tied in with the Protestant work ethic is a leap of faith, and one which makes unprovable assumptions about literally millions of people who live in poverty and despair. It also obliterates any moral concerns we may have about how lucky we are to live in relative comfort when so many struggle in the world. You see, we aren’t lucky. We deserve all we have. We earned it. The quickest way to kill compassion and empathy are to conveniently forget all the times in our lives we have been lucky.

Many will go through life not knowing what it’s like to live in a culture where your skin colour, or sex, or gender, or sexual orientation are subject to constant scrutiny. Those born into wealth will often minimise the extent to which their personal circumstances have helped them to achieve their aims. You may win the genetic lottery when it comes to physical appearance, physical and mental health, or intelligence. You may believe your struggles are comparable to those of others, without acknowledging how much family, friends, or a supportive partner have allowed you to move beyond situations which others are still mired in. In the American Dream, luck is minimised while the grit and determination of the individual are celebrated. Once a person becomes successful, it is taken for granted that they must possess a remarkable set of characteristics that set them apart from those who struggle. Imagine if the most important element of success were merely luck. In truth, we don’t need to imagine.

Over the course of several years, Duke University carried out a survey that asked the financial officers of major corporations to estimate the returns of the Standard & Poor’s stock index during the next financial year. Overall, 11,600 predictions were collected and duly examined by Duke University. The results were startling. These highly paid corporate employees appeared to know absolutely nothing about the stock market. Not only were their predictions wrong for the most part, they were actually worse than random. The more they predicted a positive stock outcome, the more likely it was to be negative, and vice versa. It would have been better to flip a coin when making a decision than take their advice. To the average person, the corporate employees who took part in this survey would be seen as accomplished individuals. Yet their success was built on nothing other than bluff and overconfidence. These were immensely lucky individuals who chose an occupation that rewards people handsomely even if they fail. If only minimum wage employees had such a safety net.

Now imagine a coin toss game. The coin is tossed by a mechanism that produces random results. Those taking part must call heads or tails while the coin is in the air. Each person does not know what the other calls. If they call the same thing, they must play again until somebody wins. Once you win a round, you play again, and again, until there is only one person left. Now imagine 10 million people playing that game. No matter how high the number of participants, somebody has to win. It is impossible for there to be no winner. Some person must win through thousands of rounds to be crowned champion. What skill did they posses? Luck. Nothing more. What if we lived in a society that was more like the coin toss game than any of us are willing to admit? Acknowledging this would result in less talk of having truly earned anything, and more feelings of gratefulness at being one of the lucky ones. You might even want to help out those worse off than you, knowing that only luck stops you from being in their shoes.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, French philosopher Camus equates humanity's condition to that of Sisyphus, the Greek king punished by the gods by being forced to push a great boulder up a hill for all eternity. To Camus, the boulder is not truly a burden, but is in fact our reason to live. In an absurd universe, without a reason to strive we are left devoid of purpose. It seems that many of the most successful among us have managed to push their boulder to the top, and in doing so they have overlooked the fact that others continue to strive, while also forgetting that their own boulder was somewhat lighter, and that their slope was not as steep. It is through such acts of forgetting that we slowly lose our humanity. So why get out of bed if we are ruled only by luck? Well, if we are lucky, we can create luck. We can find ourselves in a coding academy surrounded by like-minded individuals. With a bit of courage, we can push ourselves into social situations that allow us to connect with other humans, and in doing so increase our chances of being lucky. Cities are great luck generators on account of the sheer volume of variables that are contained within them. More variables means more opportunities for luck. Hermits don’t tend to experience much luck. To those of us tied to our burden, rejoice in the purpose this hardship gives you. It will teach you sympathy if you let it. So go into the world happy to carry your burden, and whatever you do, be lucky.

Inspiration (and facts) taken from:

The Myth of Sisyphus Albert Camus

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea Daniel C. Dennett

Thinking, Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman

The Black Swan Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The History and Beliefs of American Populist Libertarianism (The Complete Essay)

Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

... both the U.S. and Soviet governments are controlled by the same furtive conspiratorial cabal of internationalists, greedy bankers, and corrupt politicians. If left unexposed, the traitors inside the U.S. government would betray the country's sovereignty to the United Nations for a collectivist New World Order, managed by a 'one-world socialist government'." 

Robert W. Welch, Jr., founder of the John Birch Society

The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theory, is that conspiracy theorists believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is actually chaotic. The truth is that it is not The Illuminati, or The Jewish Banking Conspiracy, or the Grey Alien Theory. The truth is far more frightening. Nobody is in control. The world is rudderless.” 

Alan Moore

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart's grown brutal from the fare

W. B. Yeats

Since the 1990s, more and more Americans have taken to calling themselves libertarian. As a movement it had been growing steadily for most of the 20th Century; indeed it could be argued that it has always been an integral aspect of American politics but, until the arrival of the internet, it could never have been called a populist movement. Various right-wing intellectuals had grappled with libertarian ideas through the years, but the Republican Party as a whole still thought of itself as representing the silent majority who looked on in horror during the 1960s as the young behaved in ways that were scarcely believable to those born of a previous age. Devotion to the flag, to the church, and demands for modesty and restraint hardly screamed libertarian, yet it was from this uptight womb that American Populist Libertarianism was born.

When rock and roll first appeared in the 1950s, American conservatives were apoplectic. Young people were dressing in strange ways, being more open about their sexuality, and listening to music which was, at the very least, influenced by black artists. Despite their claims of wishing to increase the scope of individual freedoms, the right-wing in the 1950s wanted to do nothing of the sort. This social conservatism demanded respect for authority and enforced strict moral codes that frowned upon expanded social freedoms for anybody who was not a straight white male. The freedoms sought by conservatives in the 1950s were strictly business-related, i.e. less taxes, less regulations, and less government interference in the market. When it came to increased individual freedoms, however, conservatives were practically the opposite of libertarian.

From this mindset emerged the John Birch Society, a social conservative movement that thrived on conspiracy and anti-communist activism. They also promoted homeschooling and Christian family values while opposing feminism, civil rights, and just about anything which deviated from the white, male-dominated status quo. Along with Robert W. Welch, Jr, one of the founding members of the John Birch Society was Fred C. Koch, also founder of Koch Industries and father to Charles and David Koch, the two billionaires who helped bankroll the recent Tea Party movement (more on that later). At the time the John Birch Society was viewed as a joke by the majority of people, with conservative intellectual William F. Buckley, Jr. publicly criticising them on a number of occasions. It is ironic that Buckley’s attempt to marry social conservatism with free-market capitalism actually helped pave the way for a reemergence of the John Birch Society’s paranoid, conspiracy-laden philosophy in the 1990s. In the 1960s, however, social conservatism and unquestioning devotion to authority became the most public aspects of the Republican Party.

During the 1970s, a battle for the soul of the Republican Party was raging. On one side were the old Republican liberals who dominated the party leadership but failed to appeal to voters. These Republicans were social conservatives who took a more pragmatic approach to the economy. On the other side were the new Republicans who preached individualism, Christian morals, respect for authority, low taxes, and laissez-faire capitalism. These contradictory elements appealed to many US voters who wished for nothing more than a return to the good old days of pre-1960s America. The hero of this new Republicanism was Ronald Reagan, the closest thing the Republican Party has to a saint.

Even though Reagan preached small-government, he actually increased the national debt from $907 billion to $2.6 trillion, as well as increasing the size of the federal workforce by 324,000 to reach a total of 5.3 million (in case you’re wondering, military personnel only accounted for 26% of that increase). In truth, the Reagan revolution was a triumph of rhetoric over reality. In his time as governor of California, Reagan (who remains the only divorced US President) signed bills which, amongst other things, made abortion easier and which stopped California residents from carrying loaded firearms, both of which would be considered political suicide in the Republican Party of the 21st century. Reagan’s War on Drugs led to the creation of a more militarised police force, which in turn led to a huge increase in US citizens under correctional control. In 1980 the total number of American people in jail, prison, or on parole was 1,840,400. By 1989 that number was a staggering 4,055,600. Didn’t Reagan cut taxes? He did, but he also raised them. In 1980 the total tax revenue of the US government was $517.1 billion. In 1989 it was $991.1 billion. Now let’s compare that to government expenditure. In 1980, government spending was $590.9 billion, meaning there was a deficit of $73.8 billion. In 1989 government spending was $1.1437 trillion, meaning there was a deficit of $152.6 billion. In every category, Reagan fails to meet the most basic standards of 21st century Republicanism (Clinton was a more successful president from a conservative perspective), yet he is consistently held up as the patron saint of modern conservatism and as some kind of tearful patriarch turning in his grave as his beautiful vision is debased. Why is this the case? Reagan’s sublime status is the result of the most important element of modern conservatism: complete estrangement from, and denial of, facts.

The triumph of the Reagan years was not related in any way to Reagan’s actions (other than perhaps the fall of communist Russia, a feat for which Reagan can barely take any actual credit) but rather what he seemed to represent. Reagan managed to convince America that there was nothing contradictory about being a Christian and an unabashed capitalist. Even though America was founded on these contradictory elements, it was only under Reagan that the two were intertwined so powerfully. How did a religion whose holy book contained such statements as “Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God” and “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God" manage to demonise the poor and celebrate wealth?

According to Max Weber, the various Protestant sects which dominated colonial America had rejected the Catholic idea of entering into heaven through pious words and deeds. To the Protestants, everything was preordained from birth so going to a priest to ask forgiveness was worthless. You were either destined for heaven from day one or you were destined for hell. In an instant the great power of Rome was undone, but it was replaced by a spiritual insecurity on the part of the Protestants, who wondered whether their place in heaven was assured. Instead of going to a priest for guarantees, the Protestants instead looked for signs that God favoured them. One of the main signs was personal prosperity. Wealth began to indicate that you were one of God’s chosen people, but ostentatiousness was frowned upon. Any colonial Protestants who grew wealthy made sure that they did so in an unassuming manner, lest they be frowned upon by the community.

Victory in the American Revolutionary War led many Americans to believe that they were truly God’s chosen people. Despite the continuance of slavery and the genocidal fury unleashed on Native Americans, Protestant America felt very pleased with itself, imagining that only in America could people truly be free (by people they of course meant prosperous white males). If the Protestant white male in America avoided indiscreet displays of wealth, he didn’t avoid indiscreet displays of power. So emerged the image of the proudly humble, entitled, white American male, pious to a fault but ever ready to brutalise and belittle those whom he felt beneath him. In a sense, nothing much has changed since those times, other than some additional rights for those who have traditionally been denied any, and therein lies the new insecurity that haunts the white American male. The traditional ruler of America feels his power threatened, and when that happens it always means trouble for those who are the cause of the insecurity.

The Reagan years marked the first steps towards populist libertarianism. The extreme forces on the far right of the Republican Party scored major victories both ideologically and with the public, as Reagan convinced voters that Christian fundamentalism and laissez-faire capitalism were the perfect match. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Reagan managed to represent the humble Christian who believed, as the founding fathers did, that government should be limited. Yet the larger change was the full-on embrace of materialist individualism. In America, Christianity finally outed itself as the religion of the wealthy. The Protestant belief that wealth was a sign of God’s favour went into overdrive, and the 1980s became a decade forever connected to unbounded wealth and excess. America threw off the shackles of Protestant reserve and in doing so believed it was returning to the values that America was founded on. It was correct in many ways, but the severing of association with Protestant moderation effectively destroyed the right-wing intellectual tradition in America. Debate about the individual, civic duty, commerce, and religion were swept aside as Republicans put forth the idea that the Republican Party represented the true America, the one that was being eroded by liberal values. In truth it was the individualistic materialism of the Republican Party and capitalism which was destroying the moral underpinnings of white Protestant America. Yet even as it came undone, Protestant America desperately clung to the symbols of Christianity in the hopes of that it would cover up the moral black hole that was opening up.

If Reagan welded capitalism and Christianity together, it was communism which first brought them closer. As the Cold War began to dominate post-WWII politics in America and Europe, America sought to distance itself from godless communism by reaffirming its religious foundations and, as such, God started to emerge as a symbol of capitalism and individuality. It was in 1954 that the words “under God” were first added to the Pledge of Allegiance, in 1956 that “In God We Trust” was adopted as the official motto of America, and in 1957 that those same words appeared for the first time on paper money. Communism made America more religious and, in doing so, it prepared the ground for Reagan and the unholy marriage of capitalism and Christianity. The dreaded House of Un-American Activities, and later Joseph McCarthy, rose to fame during this time, going after some of the most famous names in the arts and sciences such as Thomas Mann, Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein, Langston Hughes, Nelson Algren, Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, and Dorothy Parker. Free-thinking artists were viewed as elitist snobs who had been duped by communism, while universities were seen as communist breeding grounds with hapless students unable to resist the charms of their red professors. The Red Scare left an indelible mark on the psyche of white America, creating a twisted individualism which was anti-intellectual, religious, patriotic, and paranoid. These characteristics would shape the mindset of populist libertarians, creating a rigid, suspicious personality that fed on end-times scenarios and the inherent nobility of the average Joe; the white, American, Christian male.

After Reagan’s presidency, Bush Sr. and Clinton were cautiously conservative by comparison. Indeed, by Republican standards, Bill Clinton’s achievements dwarfed those of Reagan by quite some margin. Yet Clinton was hated by Republicans and in 1998 he became only the second president in the history of America to be impeached. The anger generated against Clinton represented something beyond mere difference of opinion in a political sense. Despite his ability to balance the budget and bring economic growth, a feeling began to emerge among many Republicans that Clinton was truly immoral and as such he had to be brought down by any means necessary. As a political tactic it moved from merely attacking a person’s political beliefs to instead insinuating something truly hostile at the heart of America. The tactic ultimately failed, but as the internet began to take off in a big way it set the tone for future Republican attacks on Barack Obama. Internet chat pages allowed isolated individuals to interact with those of a similar mindset and helped facilitate the return of John Birch-inspired paranoia. Websites dedicated to conspiracy theories multiplied at an alarming rate, but the true beginning of modern conspiracy theory was the 9/11 attack, an event which coincided with the presidency of George W. Bush.

With 9/11 came the Truther movement, a loose collective of activists who generally believed that the American government was responsible for 9/11. Initially, the Truther movement appealed more to left-wing conspiracy theorists but, as time went on, the line between left and right began to blur, and the opinions of stoned crust-punks and gun-toting libertarians became indistinguishable. The American government became the ultimate symbol of evil, with octopus-like tentacles manipulating and controlling the entire free world. In the Truther world, a person is either a free-thinking individual or a hopelessly deluded drone who believes everything the government tells them. This false dichotomy prompted the belief that either the American government was completely honest about the events of 9/11, or it carried out 9/11: Governments are known to lie, therefore the government version of events is a lie, therefore the government was behind 9/11. 

The idea that the government may have been dishonest yet still did not plan the 9/11 attack hardly existed. If the 9/11 attack allowed the government of George W. Bush to move forward with an agenda that involved invading Afghanistan and Iraq, then it goes without saying that Bush and his cronies must have coordinated the entire attack. It seems plausible that the events of 9/11 prompted so much fear in the American populace that conspiracy theories provided a vital and indestructible way of processing both the fear and the multitude of voices which claimed to know exactly what happened and how. By latching on to a particular opinion and denouncing all those who disagree as government patsies, conspiracy theories provided much needed assurance in a suddenly terrifying world. The bigger problem with conspiracy theories is not so much the non-beliefs that they prompt (“I don’t believe a word the government says”) but rather the beliefs that spring up in place of previously held opinions. Sooner or later, conspiracy theorists must come up with explanations for what really happened, and the internet allowed these theories not only to disseminate, but also to solidify into accepted truths. Worse, conspiracy theorists generally do not attempt to find a one-off localised solution to events, but instead they let their imaginations run riot until they have found explanations for every major event that has ever occurred since the beginning of recorded history. In this worldview, there is only good or evil, light or dark, and conspiracy theorists believe themselves to be warriors of truth and freedom. Everything is always at stake all the time, and the world is perpetually on the verge of anarchy and armageddon where the forces of darkness run wild. Ironically, given that most libertarians promote the idea that governments are wasteful and incompetent, conspiracy theorists of a libertarian bent attribute devastatingly precise efficiency and powers of execution to the US government. The amount of work and organisation that needed to happen to ensure that the 9/11 attack was successful makes the American government look like the most well-oiled machine that has ever existed. Yet this same machine was unable to secure a military victory in Iraq and cannot be trusted to oversee healthcare for Americans. The government manages to be a terrifying, omnipresent evil one minute, and a bumbling, wasteful clown the next. 

No other cultural artifact anticipated, accelerated, and benefitted from the conspiracy theory boom than The Matrix. In this movie, there are only two types of people: the free, and the enslaved. Given that the enslaved are unaware of their bondage, it means they could at any point be functioning enemy agents so as a result, the unfree must be treated as dangerous and expendable. The critical scene in the movie is the red pill/blue pill dichotomy. To take the red pill is to hurtle headlong into the truth. To take the blue pill is to wilfully accept illusion and slavery. This metaphor has been fully embraced by conspiracy theorists, eager to promote themselves as truth seekers who have swallowed the red pill. Anybody who disagrees has clearly taken the blue pill and as such are unable to accept the harsh truth of their enslavement. (The red pill/blue pill trope has also become popular with men’s rights activists, who dismiss men who disagree with their opinion as blue pill males who have bought the lie of feminism). Though Christopher Hitchens famously described conspiracy theories as “the exhaust fumes of democracy”, the unfortunate toxins that come about from the free flow of information, it appears that they are now functioning more like compost heaps. From the debris of popular culture, living philosophies have grown that are nourished by fear and confusion.

If 9/11 and the internet heralded a new beginning for conspiracy theorists, the presidency of Barack Obama was like a nuclear explosion. For reasons that nobody has yet been able to explain (if we discount the actual answer which is racism), the arrival of Barack Obama in the White House turned the libertarian conspiracy theory mindset into a mainstream political movement. The vague, inchoate rumblings and ramblings that emerged post-9/11 suddenly caught on like wildfire and, in doing so, it turned the conspiracy theory world into a mostly right-wing affair. The post-hippie, drug-addled mindset that emerged in the 1970s, and which was both illustrated and bolstered by influential conspiracy theory novel The Illuminatus! Trilogy (which induced readers to indulge in a half-serious embrace of conspiracy as a means to both promote paranoia and to gleefully muddy the waters), was resurrected as a humourless right-wing guide to living under the tyranny of Obama. Certain groups, most notably the Tea Party, began to gain massive popular support from a particular demographic, the disenchanted middle-class white Americans who had suffered as a result of the global economic crash which occurred just as George W. Bush was leaving office. The massive deregulation of the American financial sector, which had being going on since Nixon but had really picked up steam under Reagan, finally did what many economists were predicting it would do: it brought about the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. With bankers and financiers running amok with nobody to impose any order, the whole thing finally unravelled in 2007 as toxic loans and high risk investments (amongst other things) caused the entire global economy to shake and shudder. Millions lost their jobs, millions of dollars (and pounds, and euros, etc) were lost in investments and savings, with the end result being that the US government, and most European governments, had to step in and essentially prop up the global economy, then pass on the tab to taxpayers. The world economy was brought to the brink of disaster because of deregulated financial malfeasance and only survived because of taxes. How did Tea Party activists and libertarians respond to this economic disaster which occurred during the presidency of George W. Bush? They demanded less financial regulations, insisted that Americans should pay less taxes, and placed the blame for the disaster on Barack Obama.

The anger which has erupted during the presidency of Obama is unrivalled in its insistence that Barack Obama is both the worst and the most evil president in American history. Comparisons are made to Hitler (death toll: around 20 million), Stalin (death toll: somewhere between 40 and 60 million), and Chairman Mao (death toll: somewhere between 45 and 75 million). When the president passed the Affordable Care Act (better known as Obamacare), an act which tried to ensure that every American had healthcare coverage and which also attempted to reduce healthcare costs, it was compared to slavery, the Holocaust, and war. Recently when Obama negotiated a deal with Iran in order to guarantee that Iran would slow down its nuclear weapons program, it was compared to the Holocaust. With nothing but inflammatory right-wing rhetoric gleaned from the numerous conspiracy theory/propaganda websites which proliferate the internet, Obama is painted as Satan himself, a malevolent force intent on destroying America, and freedom, forever. If this were merely a bunch of troglodyte cranks frantically typing their hate induced paranoia onto various web-sites the problem would be a small, if troubling, one. The bigger problem is that mainstream Republican politicians are endorsing these very fantasies and relentlessly playing into many voters’ paranoid fears in order to secure a vote. Many Republicans seem afraid to attack the extremist rhetoric for fear of being seen as soft, while others actively use the same rhetoric and appear to believe it. Obama has been accused of setting up death panels by mainstream politicians and continues to have his American citizenship questioned. By refusing to denounce extremism and conspiracy, the Republicans have allowed this toxic worldview to become part of everyday American political culture, as well as dominate Republican policy. In 2015, the Republican Party, by far the most powerful and most extreme right-wing party that wields real power in any democracy, are simply not extreme enough for many Americans. By fostering a fanatical and portentous approach to everyday politics the Republicans have succeeded in creating a large number of voters whose needs simply cannot be met by any reasonable democratic system, never mind the Republican Party.

As the Tea Party became more powerful in Republican circles, the GOP was plunged into a crisis. While inflammatory rhetoric fires up the right-wing, extremist language has no chance of enticing disenchanted Democrats. With no swing vote, the Republicans could not hope to secure the presidency. In the last two presidential elections the Republicans picked moderate (by Republican standards) candidates in an attempt to soothe the fears of those Americans who were alarmed by Tea Party grandiloquence. On both occasions the Republicans were defeated, and by Obama no less. This led many Republicans to believe that what was needed was a true Tea Party/libertarian candidate who could really fire up the electorate. Any future candidates who look weak on Tea Party talking points are dismissed as ‘establishment Republicans’ or RINO (Republican in Name Only). Even though it may look like the Tea Party’s moment has come and gone, in reality their philosophies have penetrated so deeply into Republican policy that it is only the name Tea Party that has become irrelevant. Uncomfortable with the idea of being part of the GOP establishment, and with the label Tea Party already feeling anachronistic, many right-wingers have instead embraced the moniker “libertarian” in an effort to distance themselves from rank-and-file Republicans. As the name Tea Party became unfashionable, the label of libertarian truly came into its own.

As the 2016 presidential election creeps closer, what differentiates the 21st century American libertarian movement from the John Birch Society inspired paranoia of the late fifties? In terms of ideas, nothing; the main change is the normalisation of libertarian rhetoric. At this point websites with comment sections show not only the popularity and appeal of the libertarian outlook, but also the absolutely limited worldview its adherents espouse. While libertarianism, in general, promotes intellectual curiosity and the free flow of ideas, American libertarianism is, in contrast, rigid and almost completely bereft of debate. Instead, a uniformity of thought and language has emerged which bypasses logic when faced with opposition. What then are the hallmarks of American libertarianism?

Libertarian Language: American libertarian language is peppered with words and phrases which imply that anybody who disagrees has been brainwashed. “Drinking the kool-aid”, “sheeple”, and “libtard” are remarkably popular. Using the acronym MSM when referring to the dreaded mainstream media is essential for showing libertarian credentials. When faced with the MSM reporting on a mass shooting, libertarians will dismiss it as a “false flag” operation designed by the government to take people’s guns away. When the issue of race emerges, libertarians will accuse others of being “race-baiters”, and the names Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson will almost certainly be invoked. The enemy is always “big government” and the “elites”. Anything which is not based on unregulated free-market principles is “socialism”. Obama is “Obummer” or “Odumber”. Then there are the libertarian men’s rights activists who, inspired by The Matrix, throw around the labels “redpill” (enlightened male) and “bluepill” (dupe who doesn’t understand women or the feminist agenda) as if those terms represent some undisputed truth. Essentially, anybody who is not a libertarian is a kool-aid drinking sheeple who loves Obummer and has been brainwashed by the race-baiters and the MSM, and who is no doubt a bluepill male.

Libertarian Beliefs: American populist libertarianism is riddled with contradictions. It has a strong Christian puritan element that supports family values, yet it worships at the altar of Ayn Rand, a Russian atheist who promoted selfish self-interest, laissez-faire capitalism, and who used her fame to enhance her love life. None of these contradictions are explored. Her atheism, her anti-Christian belief in egotistical greed, and her non-monogamous sexual behaviour is of no concern to Christian libertarians. Her belief in unregulated capitalism is enough to make her a patron saint. The Christian element has also bred a disturbing undercurrent that venerates purity, nobility, nationalism, and militarism. Gun-wielding patriots who go by the name of Oath Keepers are seen with frightening regularity on the streets of America, promising to uphold the sacred words of the Constitution. The Promise Keepers is a Christian organisation for young men which, amongst other things, promotes the need for sexual purity. Many Christian fathers and daughters attend purity balls where the daughters publicly pledge their virginity to their fathers. 

There is a similarity in spirit between the Oath Keepers of America and the post-WW I Freikorps of the German Weimar Republic. Freikorps were paramilitary groups that consisted primarily of ex-soldiers who sought structure in civilian life by maintaining the military values of honour and nationalism, and who defended Germany against communist uprisings, from both within and without her borders. Their devotion to German romantic nationalistic principles and their sense of bitterness and betrayal after Germany’s WW I defeat made them easy prey for Nazi Party recruiters. The Nazi Party built up a following by appealing to those who felt that Germany had been defeated by internal enemies (as opposed to superior military power), the November Criminals, whose actions led to the weakening of the German state and the German spirit. From this came the stab-in-the-back myth, which processed Germany’s WW I defeat as being the result of weak leadership, corrupted German values, and infiltration from Jews and communists. Germany was seen as a great and noble nation which had been humiliated and defiled by liberal Jewish values. The Nazis liked to portray themselves as rebellious heroes who proudly took a stand against the tyrannical Jewish/socialist/liberal elite who controlled the country. To his followers, Hitler was the true voice of the German people, and his rise was depicted as the reemergence of the mighty German spirit, forever throwing off the shackles of oppression.

When it comes to race, anti-Semitism is a vital aspect of American libertarianism. While there are many within the libertarian/Tea Party movement who align themselves with the extremist elements of the state of Israel at all times (these tend to be the older, evangelical types who indulge in End Times fantasies as often as possible), talk of Jewish bankers manipulating the masses is still a regular occurrence in libertarian circles. Anti-Semitism appeals to the conspiracy theory mindset, as it did in the Weimar Republic, fueling the idea of shadowy elites controlling and manipulating the lives of good, honest, hardworking people. Those who count themselves as Latino, and who are not white, are also subject to much anger and resentment in libertarian circles. Brown-skinned Latinos are more often than not viewed with suspicion in terms of their legal status as American residents/citizens. The fact that a presidential candidate can talk of building a wall between America and Mexico and accuse Mexican immigrants of being rapists and murderers but still see a surge in popularity as a result, tells us a lot about the levels of intolerance that exist in libertarian circles. Libertarian attitudes to Muslims are also extremely intolerant. Despite claiming to uphold religious liberty, libertarians tend to view Muslims, and indeed all people of Middle Eastern descent, as being potential terrorists. Libertarian groups promote hate speech against Muslims in the name of freedom and are happy to attack any sacred images that aren’t Christian. The Republican/libertarian axis promotes the idea of a War on Christmas and a War on Christians whenever Christian imagery is removed from a public space, yet sees intolerance toward Muslims as being an essential element of liberty.

With black Americans, American libertarianism is pathologically suspicious and antagonistic. Despite libertarianism being founded on distrust of authority and the championing of individual rights, when it comes to police brutality and the American criminal justice system, the vast majority of libertarian/Tea Party supporters defend the right of the state to use deadly force and draconian punishment for even the slightest infringements. The fact that the vast majority of those who suffer and die under such a system are black Americans gives a clear indication of the people whose freedoms the libertarian party wishes to defend. From its beginnings in John Birch-esque paranoia, modern American libertarianism has opposed the empowerment of black Americans. The John Birch Society stood in opposition to black Civil Rights on the spurious logic that the entire movement was controlled by communists who wished to undermine American society. As the Democratic Party emerged as the most sympathetic to the problems of black America (which is not to say that they were likely to do anything about it), most black voters chose to support the Democrats. Republicans, in turn, accused Democrats of using race to manipulate black voters, with race issues constantly dismissed by the right-wing as manipulation on the part of liberal elites. Even though black Americans were and are hyper-aware of their race due to centuries of ingrained white supremacy, to this day right-wing thinkers still promote the idea that race is a myth peddled by Democrats/communists/liberals in order to keep black Americans on the welfare plantation. The deaths of Michael BrownTamir RiceSean BellTrayvon MartinJohn CrawfordEric Garner, Freddie Gray, Renisha McBrideSandra BlandNatasha McKennaVictor WhiteJonathan SandersSamuel DuBoseJonathan Ferrell, etc, could have been avoided had they personally not thought of themselves as black. The fact that the people doing the killing thought of the victims as black is apparently of no consequence. Speeches by Republican politicians, made in reaction to each death, repeatedly blamed the victim and gave unqualified support to law enforcement officials. Many avowed libertarians feel that black people merely need to trust the justice system implicitly and do as they are told at all times when in the presence of an armed government agent. To most white Americans, even on the left, race is never the most important issue (the bumper sticker stating “No War But Class War” neatly encapsulates this very idea). Race is always a tool to divide rather than something which impacts the lives of millions of Americans on a daily basis. It is a concept that “we” must get over, “we” being all Americans, not just the white Americans who have consistently imposed the notion of race on black Americans. 

The recent controversy over the Confederate Flag also shows the white supremacist roots of modern American libertarianism. Libertarians will talk incessantly about their patriotism yet in the same breath they defend the flag of an enemy state which sought to destroy the United States of America. Not only do they defend it, but they claim it to be a symbol of virtue, nobility, and Southern pride. Only in a staunchly white supremacist country could the flag of an enemy state become a cherished symbol of goodness, given that the enemy state in question fought for the right to retain the institution of slavery and to enforce the white supremacist philosophy that black people are inferior as living creatures to white people. Confederacy Vice President Alexander Stephens said in his famous Cornerstone Speech:

The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the ‘rock upon which the old Union would split.’ He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the ‘storm came and the wind blew.’

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.”


Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. The architect, in the construction of buildings, lays the foundation with the proper material-the granite; then comes the brick or the marble. The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior, but for the inferior race, that it should be so. It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances, or to question them.

Despite the fact that many other quotes and speeches of a similar nature can be produced which show, quite unequivocally, what the Confederacy believed in and fought for and also that, as a result of the Civil War 4 million human beings were released from slavery, there is still debate in America as to the origins of the Civil War and whether the North had a legitimate cause. While debates about the Civil War are still a regular occurrence, no debate of a similar nature exists over America’s decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan, at least not in libertarian or right-wing circles. Those who sympathise with the South tend to focus on the North’s motivation for war and, in doing so, they deliberately downplay the race-based rationale which fueled the Confederacy and what the end result would have been had the South won. Many of the North’s motives may have indeed been flawed but that does not legitimise the unparalleled evil of the South’s agenda. Any flag or symbol which emerged from this agenda would, under normal circumstances, be seen as a symbol of hatred, domination, and tyranny. Not in America. The Confederate Flag, as it is now called, was originally part of the second national flag of the Confederacy. The thirteen stars within the cross represented the thirteen states of the Confederacy while the rest of the flag was white to represent the superiority of the white race. We are now told by many people that the Confederate Flag has nothing to do with slavery, white supremacy, or tyranny, that racists who have adopted it as their symbol have twisted its original meaning, and that the flag represents heritage not hate. These same people refuse to acknowledge that the very heritage that is celebrated by the Confederate Flag is one of slavery, brutality, black codes, lynching, white supremacy, Jim Crow, segregation, and the KKK. Denying the racism of the Confederate Flag goes hand in hand with a general denial about the prevalence of racism in the history of America.

After the Civil War ended, the Lost Cause philosophy emerged in the South to legitimise the aims of the Confederacy. It painted the North as a tyrant, wreaking havoc in the gentlemanly land of the South where master and slave coexisted in harmony. This ahistorical piece of fiction became a living, breathing way of life for many in the South. Many white Southerners adopted the white supremacist symbols of the Confederacy as a way to show disdain and contempt for black people living in the South, while at the same time mythologising the pre-Civil War South as a peaceful and chaste world, viciously destroyed by the marauding Yankee. The South managed to keep suppressing the black population in cruel and despotic ways and when the Civil Rights movement began to gain traction in the 1950s, the Confederate Flag reappeared all over the South as a mark of defiance against the American government’s attempts to desegregate the Southern population. When white supremacist Dylann Roof shot dead nine black Americans in June of 2015 a fierce debate erupted about the nature of the Confederate Flag. A mere 150 years after the end of the Civil War, and prompted by Roof’s racially-motivated killing spree, some Americans finally thought it was time to stop the flying of the Confederate Flag on government property. Despite the occasional voice of dissent, the libertarian/Tea Party movement instead chose to adopt the Confederate Flag as another cause, framing its removal as an example of political correctness gone mad and a sign that Obama was out to eradicate Southern culture. In choosing to defend a symbol of slavery, libertarians once again have shown how little they care for the dignity of Americans who aren’t white, and by continuing to whitewash the brutality of slavery and its legacy, they actually side with a cause committed to the negation of universal liberty.

Science as a subject is also hugely controversial in the world of American libertarianism. One would think that notions such as intellectual curiosity, free enquiry, and reliance on fact would be championed by those who promote a marketplace of ideas. The problem with science is that it will oftentimes produce facts which libertarians do not want to hear. The most obvious example of this would be climate change. The facts and reality of climate change are agreed upon by a vast majority of scientists. Yet libertarians would have us believe that the jury is still out so it’s best to wait until there is a consensus. Many also feel that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by liberal scientists/elites in order to enslave humanity. Yes, despite the freely available evidence produced by scientists, libertarians find it easier to believe that almost every scientist on earth is part of a secret conspiracy to bring about a New World Order. Instead of viewing the scientific findings related to climate change as facts, they instead view it as a critique of the free-market and mass consumption and, as such, proclaim that it cannot possibly be true. Then there are the religious libertarians who think God will take care of earth no matter what or, worse, that climate change and the New World Order are actually part of the End Times as laid out in the Book of Revelations. To say that many libertarians welcome the idea of the end of the world is an understatement. 

Evolution is also disputed in the world of libertarianism. The should-be-uncontroversial scientific theory (as an aside, a theory in scientific jargon does not mean hunch or intellectual whim; it means an established scientific explanation that has been verified by observation and replicable scientific experiments) about the origins of humanity has come under attack from the religious element of libertarianism. Despite overwhelming evidence from almost every scientific discipline, and unanimous agreement on all scientific fronts, that evolution constitutes one of the most inarguable and well researched scientific theories in the history of science, the American libertarian movement has once again attempted to portray the facts of evolution as lacking a broad consensus. There seems to be a fear that exposure to scientific ideas, especially the theory of evolution, will lead to religious doubt, which will, in turn, lead to atheism and a godless embrace of the liberal agenda. Textbooks have been altered in American schools so that the facts surrounding both climate change and evolution are shown in a less favourable light, while at the same time promoting pseudo-science like Creationism. The reason homeschooling is so popular amongst libertarians is because many of them fear that exposure to other points of view will corrupt and brainwash their children. Homeschooling ensures that children are allowed to digest only pre-approved ideas. It is not meant to promote intellectual enquiry but to restrict it. Libertarians live in fear of the marketplace of ideas and as such seek to control that flow so that their opinions cannot be challenged. In trying to push such intellectually sterile ideas as Creationism into the America’s schools, libertarians use the idea of “opposing viewpoints” and “teaching the controversy”, while yelling censorship if their ideas are dismissed. At the exact same time they work tirelessly to promote the suppression of scientific facts that go against their worldview.

When the Supreme Court recently endorsed gay marriage, the evangelical wing of the Republican Party had a meltdown. The tangled connections between conservatives/Republicans/Tea Partiers/libertarians looked to unravel slightly. While many Republicans and religious Tea Partiers complained that they were being suppressed because their right to dictate the lives of others had been taken away, more than a few libertarians supported the decision on the grounds that the government shouldn’t be allowed to dictate what two consenting adults chose to do. Yet these voices were often drowned out by the more vocal Christian element of libertarianism. Libertarian darling Rand Paul made his position as unclear as possible, stating that adults can have contracts (which is ultimately what marriage is) but that gay marriage was something he personally opposed and which he believed was the result of a moral crisis in America that only religion could fix. Dodging the idea of personal liberty, Paul refused to take a stand and instead invoked state’s rights. The belief that a majority can limit the liberty of a minority is not something Rand Paul loses any sleep over, as long as it is individual state majorities and not the federal government. Despite some libertarians coming out in favour of the decision, gay marriage has more often than not been added to the great pile of grievances that many straight, white Americans, particularly men, have been adding to over the years. In this context gay marriage is used as a signifier that America is changing, and being corrupted, by liberal values. The idea that the country has wandered from the path of Biblical righteousness is strong among those who call themselves libertarian and, when a decision is made by government or the Supreme Court that goes against their beliefs, it is further proof of the tyranny of liberalism and the ongoing oppression of good Christian patriots (whose lives were not changed one bit by the gay marriage decision).

Oppression to the majority of people is the restriction of personal liberty. To many libertarians, however, oppression is restricting their ability to impose their morals on others, with gay marriage being a prime example. The issue of free speech is one that also causes much confusion in libertarian circles. Free speech in America is protected by the First Amendment, which says:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The First Amendment here states that Congress will make no laws that limit free speech. Somehow this has been interpreted by libertarians to mean that people should be allowed to say whatever they want with no consequences. The fact that this interpretation actually creates a government which can interfere with both private lives and private businesses has never occurred to many libertarians (imagine an employee saying whatever they wanted, to the detriment of a business, and the business being told that the employee’s speech was protected). Lacking any real insight into the meaning or purpose of the First Amendment, Republicans/Tea Partiers/libertarians are prone to yell “free speech” the minute anybody challenges their position, or the moment somebody is fired, or forced to apologise, by their employer for saying something offensive. Libertarians play the free speech card to combat PC (political correctness), a term invented to discredit the inclusive language that emerged in academia during the 1980s. The language in question was designed to take into account the feelings of marginalised groups, but it was soon scorned by right-wing commentators who felt that it was akin to the Orwellian “thought police”. The following excerpt is from a speech in 1991 by George H. W. Bush:

“Ironically, on the 200th anniversary of our Bill of Rights, we find free speech under assault throughout the United States, including on some college campuses. The notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land. And although the movement arises from the laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and hatred, it replaces old prejudice with new ones. It declares certain topics off-limits, certain expression off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits.

What began as a crusade for civility has soured into a cause of conflict and even censorship. Disputants treat sheer force -- getting their foes punished or expelled, for instance -- as a substitute for the power of ideas.

Throughout history, attempts to micromanage casual conversation have only incited distrust. They have invited people to look for an insult in every word, gesture, action. And in their own Orwellian way, crusades that demand correct behavior crush diversity in the name of diversity.

We all should be alarmed at the rise of intolerance in our land and by the growing tendency to use intimidation rather than reason in settling disputes.”

Bush ended this speech with “And God bless the United States of America.” failing to see the irony in asking for God’s blessing. The fact that Christianity has been the single biggest constrainer of speech and ideas in America’s history is glossed over. To this day, people are punished or expelled for not having the correct religious opinions. Despite freedom to exercise religion also being part of the First Amendment, Christians and libertarians almost uniformly opposed the construction of a mosque in New York because it was too close to where the Twin Towers had once stood. Libertarians demand that Christians be allowed to say whatever they wish and many feel that Christians have the right to impose their morals on others, a belief that became national news in the case of Kim Davis. Christians have literally opposed the same First Amendment that they claim to cherish (in the case of the mosque near ground zero), yet frame PC as some kind of dangerous force that is threatening to undermine the very notion of freedom in America. The use of force mentioned by Bush in his speech has never happened in the name of PC, but has happened countless times in the name of Christianity. The use of force to kill unarmed black Americans is supported in the libertarian world, yet PC is the real evil. Push a libertarian as to why PC is so terrible and you’ll get comparisons to Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. Push more for actual real-world examples of the devastating evils of PC and you’ll find that there are none, outside of perhaps a story of a person being fired for saying something offensive (offensive to minorities that is, because if somebody says something offensive to Christians then they should obviously lose their job). Crime is down all over Western Europe and America, and has been dropping since the early 1990s, but this is of no consequence to the PC-hating fearmongers. To them, America is becoming a lawless, fascist, godless country that needs to be restored to its former glory. When a movement sees more danger in PC than climate change, and attempts to shut-down discussion on climate change, it’s hard to discern what kind of freedom they are championing.

Abortion is close to being the most controversial subject in American political discourse (though as we shall see there is one topic in particular that is more controversial). To get to the heart of the abortion controversy, we need to see where science and The Bible come into conflict. On the issue of abortion, the answer is: nowhere. Even though The Bible is the holy book of Christianity which some believe is the literal word of God, it does not see fit to mention abortion once. Even as Christianity grew, no clear consensus on abortion emerged. While many Christians opposed it vehemently, there were others who thought that the soul was not present at conception but only entered the body at the quickening which was, in general, thought of as being around 17 to 18 weeks into the pregnancy. Among those who thought that life did not begin at conception and who therefore thought early term abortions should not be considered murder were venerated Christian thinkers such as St. Augustine, St. Jerome, Pope Innocent III, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Pope Gregory XIV. At this point, 95% of abortions in America occur before 17 weeks, and the majority of those who obtain an abortion are practicing Christians. It is wrong to say that Christians are against abortion. The Bible condemns eating shellfish more than it condemns abortion, and there is no universal agreement in the history of Christianity about when life begins and whether abortion is always wrong. To say that “Thou shalt not kill” outlaws abortion also means it outlaws the death penalty, war, and lethal force from police and private citizens who feel in any way threatened, all things which the majority of Christians support. The fact that most Christians who are against abortion are also against contraception suggests that this is an issue of women’s rights rather than religious beliefs. The Bible forbids neither abortion nor contraception, and the Christian Church has not had a consistent stance in regards to either issue. When examined properly, the overwhelming majority of abortions are uncontroversial from a religious standpoint. Christians and libertarians have once again sought to impose their moral beliefs on others and see resistance to that imposition as oppression.

Christians in America are unique in their belief that the Ten Commandments should hold pride of place in town squares, yet in the same breath they demand the right to break those commandments. Not working on the sabbath day is ignored by the vast majority of Christians, even those who see the Bible as the divine word of God. Yet that is nothing in comparison to the Christian/libertarian view of guns and the right to kill. Guns constitute the backbone of libertarian beliefs in the sense that libertarians appear to believe that freedom is impossible without a gun. Not only that, the culture surrounding guns has resulted in several states passing ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws, which in effect means that a gun owner does not need to retreat from a dangerous situation but can in fact escalate it if they feel threatened. Christian libertarians demand the right to kill if threatened and do not feel that this compromises their belief system. The same people who claim they are being oppressed because the Supreme Court legalised gay marriage also claim that unless they are allowed to break one of the Ten Commandments then they are suffering under tyranny. Gun laws in America have not succeeded in making the country safer. Compared to other industrialised first-world nations, America is far and away the most dangerous in terms of murder rates. Yet it goes beyond merely the dangers of guns. Right now, it is almost impossible to even discuss gun control as the subject has become so politically toxic. The National Rifle Association (NRA) has controlled the narrative on guns for decades and at the merest hint of a discussion on changing the current laws the NRA unleashes a new wave of propaganda designed to whip-up the worst fears of libertarian gun owners. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has no figures on gun deaths because they were banned from doing any research. Each gun massacre in America leads to increased gun sales because many are convinced that Obama and his Big Government elites will try to take their guns away. Libertarians remain convinced that Obama is out to get their guns despite the fact that Obama has not limited gun ownership rights in any way. In fact he has expanded them. Libertarian hero Ronald Reagan supported the Brady Bill, George W. Bush publicly advocated for gun control, yet it is only under Obama that talk of “He’s coming for your guns” has exploded, adopting a narrative that paints Reagan, the man who passed an infamous gun control law while governor of California, as a libertarian hero and Obama, who has expanded gun ownership rights, as a gun-hating tyrant who seeks to impose martial law in America.

American libertarianism has become the home to every disaffected white male who feels threatened by anything unfamiliar. Instead of holding libertarian views in the European tradition, American libertarianism has essentially rounded up the most restrictive, intolerant, and dangerous viewpoints that seek to wipe away the steps society has taken to tackle inequality and poverty. At the core of American libertarianism is unapologetic racism, disgust at femininity and women who stray from traditional feminine roles, as well as a fragile masculinity that needs a gun to feel safe from the non-white hordes which continually threaten America in libertarian End Times fantasies. Here is where the anti-gay, anti-semitic, racist, white supremacist, lost cause/Confederate Flag supporting, anti-feminist, anti-welfare, pro-homeschooling, anti-science, anti-evolution, anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, and gun-loving white males all come together under one big tent. Instead of promoting a free exchange of ideas, American libertarianism produces frighteningly similar outlooks in regards to all major issues. There will be talk of big government, government bullies, and race baiting. The United Nations will be viewed as some evil institution intent on enslaving the world under the New World Order. The Federal Reserve will also be seen as a malignant entity, and cries of “End the Fed” will be legion. Mass shootings will be considered false flags carried out by Obama and the mainstream media (MSM). There will be talk of “Taking back America”, the white fantasy of going back to a time when only straight white land-owning males had any power and where black Americans were either enslaved or disenfranchised and persecuted via violent lynchings, black codes, and Jim Crow. Here is where the white persecution fantasy is whipped up into an apocalyptic frenzy, with mainstream politicians holding similar viewpoints to conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones. Anybody who disagrees is a zombie sheeple, a slave to the elites/establishment, a poor unawakened dupe like those unfortunate souls in The Matrix. While it’s easy to laugh at their opinions, the amount of people who subscribe to such viewpoints are many. With Donald Trump’s popularity continuing to rise despite his hateful attitudes in regards to Mexican immigrants, women, Muslims, and the Black Lives Matter movement, there is every sign that a charismatic politician with a more nuanced approach could easily entice even more followers to the cause, allowing for the creation of an American fascism that reinstates white supremacy as the only real moral code in America, as well as venerating militaristic machismo, thus restoring the fractured masculinity of the white American male. The Civil War, Civil Rights, feminism, and LGBT rights have all been hugely influential and positive in terms of lessening inequality in America, yet to libertarians all these events were an anathema, signs of a corrupt liberal agenda taking away the liberties of good, honest Americans. As the swirl of conspiracy becomes even more violent, and criticisms of these same theories becomes all but impossible, the threat to civil society becomes all the more intense. When countless untruths become enshrined beliefs, the potential for extremism multiplies. Unvarnished American libertarianism is unapologetic white supremacist rage, fueled by the idea that having less control of the agenda than in previous times means oppression. Historically, the tactic to instil white fear has always been blowing the racial dog-whistle in order to unite white Americans. When the subtle language of racial hatred becomes the norm, however, and white fears become heightened due to a black president, then only a fascist dictator will appease the anguished extremists. If you blow a dog whistle enough times, a wolf will come to your door, and those who blow the whistle will not be able to control its hunger. Those libertarians who pray for some kind of End Times struggle may just get what they wish, but only if the rest of America refuses to see the danger. It’s time we started taking the libertarian movement as seriously as it takes itself.